Book Review: The Lost Rainforests of Britain

lost rainforests

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“In England, trees grow where people have not prevented them”

Britain was once a rainforest nation. Large swathes of the western edges – up to one fifth of the total land mass – used to be covered in temperate rainforest. Small pockets still remain but even these are under threat. Industrial farming practices, invasive species such as rhododendron, and man’s thoughtless squandering of his life support system for short-term pleasure or gain all wreak destruction on habitats that have value beyond financial considerations. Sadly, few pay attention.

“this great forgetting that we once had rainforests is almost as heartbreaking as the loss of the forests themselves. It points to a phenomenon that ecologists call ‘shifting baseline syndrome’: society’s ability to grow accustomed to environmental losses.”

In 2020 Guy Shrubsole moved from London to Devon. Here he discovered that Dartmoor, his new local area, still contained fragments of an important ecosystem he had previously been unaware existed. This book documents the investigation he undertook to find and attempt to map Britain’s lost rainforests, and to work out what would need to be done to bring at least some of them back again.

“The biblical story of the Fall – that we once lived in paradise, but lost it due to our sins – remains a powerful narrative”

The opening chapter introduces the reader to what a temperate rainforest is. Here, and throughout the book, a great deal of detail is included about the unusual plant species supported when they are left alone to flourish. This naming and explaining slowed the unfolding narrative but proved necessary if the extensive value of this habitat is to be understood. Man too quickly considers value as monetary when it is becoming increasingly clear that nature offers more important health benefits, both physical and mental.

“A visit to a rainforest feels to me like going into a cathedral. Sunlight streams through the stained-glass windows of translucent leaves, picking out the arches of tree trunks with their halos of moss. They’re places that at once teem with life, and yet have a sepulchral stillness to them.”

As the quest progresses there is mention of the cultural significance of these ancient forests – the myths passed down through history and the inspiration provided for more modern writers. Both Conan Doyle and Tolkien wove the awe and mystery of the rainforest environment into their most famous stories.

The medicinal properties to be derived from certain plants therein are, somewhat worryingly, being recognised by those whose interest may not be entirely wholesome.

“The old-man’s beard lichen contains usnic acid, which is considered more effective than penicillin against some bacteria. We’ve only just touched on the capacity of these organisms. One recent review of the pharmaceutical properties of lichens concluded they represent ‘an untapped source of biological activities of industrial importance”

If rainforests are to be protected and allowed to regenerate, the public need to be made aware of them. This raises the potential problem of increasing visitor numbers to small and fragile woodlands. Support is needed but also protection. It is, after all, possible to love a fabulous place to death.

As well as exploring Dartmoor, the author visits fragments of rainforests in the Lake District, across Wales and then Scotland. These areas suffer similar problems. Vast tracts of former rainforest have been ‘sheepwrecked’. Scotland especially is plagued by increasing numbers of deer introduced by wealthy landowners who regard shooting the creatures as a fun activity. In trying to curb numbers of these damaging grazers, advocates of rewilding – often incomers – have clashed with the local community, especially farmers. For rainforests to flourish there needs to be both funding and collaboration.

“The truth is that there is more than enough space in Wales, as there is in the rest of Britain, both for farming to continue and for more rainforests to flourish. But it needs to be a different type of farming: fewer sheep, a shift to cattle and swine, and more space for nature to thrive on the least productive land.”

The unfolding chapters set out how land use constantly changes over time, offering hope that nature can heal if shielded from potential damage and then left to do so. There is also a degree of despair that man too often looks out only for personal gain in the short term. Wider issues are so rarely understood or listened to.

Dormant rainforest returns if conditions are conducive. This means minimal management, not the mass tree planting that introduces nursery raised, non native woodland prone to diseases. Allowing plants to return is only a part of the story. Successful rewilding also requires birdlife and mammals, including predators. Although controversial in certain circles, a compelling case for this is included.

“what we fail to perceive, we often fail to protect”

It is fascinating to consider that Britain could support an ecosystem as important as the Amazon – if the will were there to do at home what many have campaigned for in Brazil. Shrubsole makes a compelling case for how this may be achieved, although points out it would require long term thinking along with legal protections and landowner support. He writes with passion, providing detailed endnotes listing sources and references to scientific studies – a clarion call not to repeat mistakes made in the past.

Any Cop?: A timely and important reminder that intervention is required to protect and restore ecosystems necessary to support all life on earth. Rainforests may be just one piece of this puzzle, but the abundance of their benefits is made clear in this engagingly informative work.

Jackie Law

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Book Review: Under the Stars

“When the sky is naturally dark, other lights are revealed, some of which – like the night sun – we didn’t even know we were missing out on. With too much artificial light there is a darkness of a different kind in our lives.”

Matt Gaw was inspired to explore the nocturnal world by his ten year old son who, arguing for a later bedtime, complained about having to spend so much of his life asleep. Gaw realised that he had not experienced the world at night except when it is artificially lit. He started to go on walks, especially in places where true darkness still exists. There has been recognition recently within the environmental community that, in man’s quest for personal safety, the prevalence of artificial light is another way he is damaging our increasingly fragile ecosystem.

“By chasing away darkness and hiding the cues given by natural light we have created another imbalance in the natural world that impacts on plants, pollinators, mammals, birds and, eventually, us.”

Before coming to this understanding, Gaw goes out into the night to gauge his reaction to the removal of light. He ponders why people are so often afraid of the dark. Children grow up with stories of monsters and other dangers. Throughout history, rulers would impose curfews on their populace under the guise of safety but, more likely, to prevent sedition. Groups would cluster together and post lookouts. City gates would be locked during the night hours. Darkness was associated with the morally corrupt and lawbreakers. Predators lurked in shadows where dire deeds could occur unseen.

Contemporary society retains many of these fears despite lights now shining bright – particularly in cities – throughout the night. As well as walking around his local vicinity, Gaw visits various locations: a remote beach in East Anglia, a difficult to access forest in Scotland, woodland on Dartmoor, a Scottish island designated a Dark Sky Community. He discovers true fear when he loses his bearings. He discovers the wonder of the Milky Way when visible to the naked eye. For comparison, he also visits London where the lights never dim. He reflects on the effects of night working on people, and the damaging confusion artificial lighting causes in other creatures’ behaviour.

The wonders to be discovered are interspersed with the realities of the natural world – red in tooth and claw – potentially perilous if disrespected. Gaw takes risks in his nighttime journeys that could have ended quite differently.

At the start of the book the author is unfamiliar with even basic astronomy. By the end he has become familiar with many constellations. This book is about so much more though than star gazing. It is a study of yet another disconnect man now has with nature and the damage this has wreaked. It is a reminder of the health benefits of darkness, the effects on circadian rhythm. It is an appeal for man to take notice of his actions – to pause and consider.

The writing is rich and poetic in places. The author is passionate about his subject in a way that draws the reader in. A beautiful elucidation on the importance of returning to a more natural darkness. An illuminating walk through the wonderment of night.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Signal Failure

Signal Failure, by Tom Jeffreys, is a considered and often wry discourse on the impact of environmental change written after the author walked from London to Birmingham along the proposed route of the HS2 railway line. He writes of the aesthetics of the places he passes through and summarises discussions he had with a variety of individuals he met along the way. There are both financial and emotional aspects to their opinions about HS2. Some see potential benefits. Many object and struggle with the impotence they feel.

The narrative is not presented as an expert assessment but rather as the musings of an interested observer. As the author walks he has time to mull many aspects of the changes huge infrastructure projects can herald and the human reaction when a way of living comes under threat.

“Some of this walk will be about clinging on to the past; some about navigating the future.”

Jefferys set out on this walk with an idea but an apparent lack of experience of such an undertaking. He suffered from an over heavy rucksack and irrational fears when alone at night in his tent. He claims not to be a nature writer due to his lack of detailed knowledge but this means his thought processes are accessable. His reflections are interesting for their cogitation but also their ordinariness.

“For this walk I was keen to retain that sense of adventure, of an openess to the unknown”

Many of the arguments against HS2 are based on nostalgia, a desire to retain a vista or the bonds of community in which residents have invested. To be heard by those in authority these must be presented in quantifiable terms.

For example, in considering the impact on a well used and locally valued regional park an employee emphasises:

“the importance of usefulness […] the reduction of nature’s great complexity, its vast unknowability, to the level of a resource – to serve a single purpose or function. Nature as utility, valued only insofar as it serves a human purpose.”

This commodified idea of the English countryside does not promote untidy wildness but rather a taming of nature. Parks, farmland, managed forests and picturesque villages are all manmade.

Throughout the walk Jeffreys observes red kites, a species recently reintroduced by the RSPB.

“In a sense, their frequency detracts from what was once a splendid sight – although perhaps that reflects a misjudged appreciation of nature, whereby scarcity equates to importance, within the skewed economies of the collector.”

As miles are covered what is noticed is that working landscapes create their own aesthetics. There are fields filled with crops and livestock, pylons, roads and winding canals. He walks paths that follow abandoned railway lines. Enthusiasts have preserved some of these along with their accoutrements and appropriate steam trains.

A vast infrastructure project such as HS2 will bring massive disruption lasting many years. It will cut through what is considered beautiful countryside damaging the flora and fauna as well as established communities. That local residents resent this unwanted invasion is understandable, but the author ponders if this is reason enough not to go ahead.

Jeffreys passes by the results of other projects – landfill sites, a massive waste incinerator, electrical substations:

“the countryside, as I’ve already learnt, is not some zone of pristine purity. We have already altered it beyond belief with our agriculture, our transport, our waste.”

Over time, change is inevitable and sometimes for the better although there are will be certain losers in any transition. Jeffreys observes listed buildings and preserved parklands, neatly manicured and maintained. He mentions slum dwellings swept away and wonders where the occupants went and how they felt. In looking back, especially at the heavy industries in and around Birmingham, not all that is gone is to be mourned. He wonders which of our many pasts we wish to retain.

HS2 will have the greatest impact on those who value the tranquility of their lives along the proposed route. The line will be used by those who can afford it with any benefits accrued long term. What this book offers is not so much an opinion on this particular project as an eminently readable wider vision of how and why a variety of people value the environment in which they choose to live and play. Whether any change will ultimately be for good or ill, and whether it will then be considered worth the cultural and economic cost, is a layered and complex question. The reader is not offered answers so much as a broader understanding of the picture beyond that which invested parties wish to frame.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

Reality doesn’t conform to the models, therefore reality must be wrong

It is very difficult to discuss climate science with those who believe in anthropomorphic global warming. The warmists state that the science is proven; that there is consensus within the scientific community. When it is pointed out to them that many eminent scientists have questioned their orthodoxies, they claim that these scientists are not relevant experts or have been discredited. If it is mentioned that their experts have been publishing incomplete results skewed in their favour then this is explained as being taken out of context or misunderstood. Their experts are always better and more trustworthy than your experts.

When the results of scientific studies do not back up the warmists point of view then it is often claimed that the studies must have been funded by Big Oil or some other dubious source, thus skewing the results. When their own studies (funded by their own interested parties) do not prove their point of view then the results are not published or only ‘relevant’ information is released. There are plenty of people now looking more closely at the available data and debunking the arguments. There are gaping holes in the explanations that bluster and shouting will not hide. Climate science research has become closed and secretive, but carefully worded Freedom of Information requests alongside leaks from scientists who are unwilling to hide uncomfortable truths are uncovering facts that the warmists did not wish to see in the public domain.

I am not going to attempt to debate the science in detail here; plenty of blogs are written by those with more knowledge than I, which clarify the reasoning and publish links to the original research and the lies told to the media about what has been proved. No doubt these will be cast aside contemptuously by those who do not wish to believe. I find it immensely frustrating that the lack of reasoned debate amongst climate scientists is giving science a bad name. Scientific research should be open to questions; if facts can be proven then nothing need be hidden.

What I wish to explore here is the impact of the drive over the past thirty or so years to convince the public that global warming exists, is life threatening and that something can and should be done about it.

The drive to cut CO2 emissions has spawned a plethora of money making schemes. Companies that manufacture and fit solar panels benefit from government subsidies, land owners rent out fields for wind turbines and solar ‘farms’, appliances that meet prescribed environmental ratings do not last as long as those they replace so ensure more sales. The cleaner air produced will rarely offset the pollution caused by the manufacture, fitting and disposal. Householders pay for these schemes through the direct cost of purchase and through taxes that are used to provide the subsidies. Those with solar panels on their roofs may enjoy the short term benefit of subsidised electricity but at what cost to everyone else?

The cleaner air demanded from power stations has made burning fossil fuels uneconomic. Thus, the coal fired stations have been allowed to become run down and will soon be decommissioned. As yet, there is no viable alternative that produces enough power to meet demand. Already we are seeing the cost of heating our homes rise, but how great will be the hardship when enough power cannot be generated? It is estimated that some 250,000 people in Britain have died from the cold in the last ten years. In contrast there have been around 10,000 heat related deaths over the same period of time.

Setting aside such local concerns and looking at the situation from a global point of view, the warmists love to talk of deserts being created and peoples displaced as sea levels rise and land can no longer be farmed. The problem for them is that the models that they have used to generate their predictions have failed to work; the changes predicted are not happening. This does not stop them ascribing every significant weather event to anthropomorphic climate change. It is quite amusing to hear weather forecasters talking of unprecedented events and then telling us when such a thing last happened. I recently read a newspaper article which asked the question ‘Arctic Ice Melt; Is the North Pole Going to Melt entirely?’ This was published on Thursday 5 April 1923. Arctic ice melts are a normal and recurring event. 

Climate change happens and has always happened. It should also be remembered that CO2 is needed for life; plants love it! Man may be a destructive force on earth but not in the way the warmists are describing.

The costly policies that we are being forced to adopt are not going to change global weather patterns. Even if some of what the warmists are predicting were to actually happen, the measures being taken in an attempt to prevent this are futile. The cost is not just monetary (think of the damage to the poorer countries of the world caused by the rush to produce bio fuels) and will, as ever, adversely impact the poor whilst benefiting the wealthy. These policies are a deluded madness.

At a local level I can see the benefits of cleaner air. I walk or cycle rather than use my car, but that is my choice. I can see that it is not going to noticeably change the air that I breathe. The exercise will benefit my health, but I will not campaign for others to do as I do; I cannot know when someone needs to use their car due to mobility or health issues.

If the resources being poured into attempting to prevent climate change were being used to help those in need then perhaps we could effect an improvement of global proportions. Changing perception will be an uphill battle though. With so many of the wealthy and powerful benefiting from the public’s belief in the great global warming scam there will be little appetite for sacrificing the goose that lays the golden egg, even if this can be proven to be for the greater good.

Global Warming